Korean Movie Review – Kim Ki-duk’s Breath (숨)

After watching Kim Ki-duk’s “Pieta,” which was the first Korean film to win the top honor at one of the three major film festivals (Cannes, Berlin and Venice), I decided to take a look at one of his films that came close to winning at the Cannes film festival but didn’t — the 2007 film “Breath.”

Much like the majority of Kim’s works, “Breath” focuses on the relations and interactions between an unlikely couple. Yeon (Park Ji-a) is a depressed housewife who spends all her time at home by herself. She is clearly unhappy with her life and yearns for something more from the universe.

As a way of dealing with this loneliness (and paired with the discovery of her husband’s infidelity), she decides to visit death row inmate Jang Jin (Chang Chen) after hearing about several of his suicide attempts on the news. Even though there appears to be no apparent connection between the two, we watch as Yeon continues to visit Jin on several occasions. And even though Yeon’s husband (Ha Jeong-woo) finds out about the affair and demands that she stop, she continues it until the final moment of Jin’s life.

“Breath” offers its viewers no clear explanations, and you are forced to make your own conclusions about its ending. It is also unclear as to whether Yeon and Jin knew each other before their first actual encounter at the prison, nor do we really fully understand her motivations for starting and ending the relationship. She talks to Jin as if he was her best friend and kisses him as if they had always been lovers but, as far as we know, they had never met previously.

And who is the mysterious Inspector Gadget-like villain, watching and controlling from behind the monitor in the prison? Some have suggested it is Kim himself, not only guiding events from outside the movie, but inside as well. Once again, no clear answers are provided.

The directing and acting are both excellent, and I particularly love how the film opts for a “less is more” approach.

Absent is the flashy editing that often defines the genre and, instead, the characters say more to each other with subtle, pensive glances.

Rather than emphasizing each word of dialogue, speakers are framed offscreen so we can focus on the visible character’s reactions.

At times, “Breath” plays out more like a theater production with very few verbal exchanges between the prisoners and Kim’s trademark long takes using a free-roaming camera. It was refreshing to see.

“Breath” is widely considered to be inferior to some of Kim’s other films, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and would definitely recommend it to fans of his work.

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